North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Tackle online violence against women now: a call to the internet giants

Online violence against women is everyone’s business, and internet companies must act now, says Lawyers for Justice in Libya

Olga Jurasz
22 December 2021, 12.00am
Protest on the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in Nepal on 25 November 2021
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ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

This year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence highlighted once again the global concern about the need to tackle online violence against women (OVAW). From the UN to the Council of Europe and from Bengaluru to Ramallah, activists, researchers and human rights defenders were calling out the lack of action towards ending OVAW. It has been powerful, invigorating and galvanising to observe the global unity over this modern phenomenon.

However, now that 16 Days of 2021 are over, we must continue to ask difficult questions about the responsibility to end OVAW, and put a spotlight on how slow progress in addressing it is an obstacle to gender equality and women’s rights.

The pandemic of online violence against women

OVAW is no longer a niche topic and there is a growing acceptance, both amongst international institutions and the general public, that violence against women is as serious online as it is offline. What’s more, OVAW crosses geographical boundaries as well as geopolitical and cultural contexts.

A 2021 report by Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) highlighted the perils and lived experiences of Libyan women who have been subjected to online violence in the already fragile context of the country’s political dialogue and its attempts to transition into democracy and the rule of law.

The ongoing experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the societal reliance on technology and the internet. It has shown that contemporary lives are intertwined between online and offline worlds, subverting the myth that what happens online stays online and – in the case of OVAW – is less real or serious than offline abuse. However, the law is lagging behind this recognition and, in general, falls short of providing legal protections and remedies to the victims of OVAW.

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Cyber laws can also be tools of oppression themselves, undermining human rights and women’s safety online, as exemplified by Libya’s new anti-cybercrime law, ratified on 26 October 2021, which will “severely restrict freedom of expression, curtail press freedom, and legalise mass surveillance of speech online”.

Increasingly, the human rights implications of OVAW – especially on women’s freedom of expression – are being brought to the fore. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression noted in October 2021:

“In its most extreme form, sexual and gender-based violence online and offline is used to chill or kill expression that is nonconformist or transgresses patriarchal and heteronormative societal or moral codes or norms… The harm caused by online violence, sexist hate speech and disinformation are real and diverse, affecting the mental and physical health of those targeted, undermining their confidence and autonomy, stigmatising them and generating fear, shame, and professional and reputational damage. In extreme cases, online threats can escalate to physical violence and even murder… Since online networks are the dominant space for freedom of expression in the digital age, silencing such voices online may prevent them from being heard at all, reducing diversity and affecting democratic debate.”

Internet platforms and OVAW

But, what about the responsibility of internet companies such as Facebook, Google or Twitter to address OVAW on their platforms?

The online sphere is largely controlled by private actors, who have not only the power but also the resources to tackle OVAW – in many instances both in quantities exceeding that of many states. Despite taking a pledge to address the abuse of women on their platforms in July 2021, internet companies continue to stall in taking concrete action against it, even though they are aware of its harmful impacts. This attitude poses a significant challenge to bringing any meaningful change for women who participate online and suffer abuse as a result.

Unlike states, companies do not owe human rights obligations to individuals. However, it is increasingly recognised that human rights violations can and do occur on online platforms, raising the question of platforms’ responsibilities for prevention of these violations as well as accountability for them. Whilst states have a duty to protect human rights, businesses have the responsibility to respect human rights – as explained in the UN’s ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’. This means that businesses should “[s]eek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts”.

We have reached breaking point in the pandemic of online violence against women

The ‘internet giants’ (Facebook, Google and Twitter) have indeed taken steps to address selected forms of online content, which is perceived as harmful, hateful or offensive – typically where extremist or terrorist content is involved. However, they are yet to take meaningful steps to address OVAW. The extent of the platforms’ initiatives to tackle OVAW has been largely limited to taking down abusive content (only once it’s reported) or introducing user controls on who can reply to public tweets, actions which mask the scale and the root causes of the problem rather than providing real remedies. The reporting mechanisms for online gender-based violence that falls short of online hate are limited in scope and far from effective. As highlighted by the LFJL, there are strong concerns about internet platforms’ limited understanding of regional, linguistic and cultural meanings of abuse directed against women. This results in inaction towards such abuse, as it is not perceived to be contrary to the platform’s rules, which in turn contributes to the continuation of OVAW and undermines online safety.

Why should platforms act now (and how)?

There is one remaining and important question: why should internet companies care about tackling OVAW on their platforms, especially given the lack of an explicit legal obligation to do so?

Companies today are keen to be seen as ‘socially responsible’, in issues ranging from car safety to environmental sustainability, even – in some cases – if being socially responsible involves an anti-growth strategy. The internet giants have an opportunity to take action against some of society’s longest-standing challenges – gender-based violence and inequality – and emerge as pioneering a solution to an important problem rather than fuelling it by prioritising profit over women’s safety. Given the internet giants’ steady increase in revenue – with Facebook nearly doubling its profits in the first three months of 2021 alone – allocating more funds to develop practical tools to tackle OVAW would be seen not only as a viable, but also a socially oriented, investment.

It is essential that internet companies become transparent about their strategy towards tackling OVAW. For instance, publishing an annual audit containing gender disaggregated data on responses to reports of gender-based abusive conduct and effectively addressing linguistic challenges in moderation and reporting mechanisms are welcome steps to ensure such transparency and to mitigate the harms of OVAW.

Creating legal obligations that force companies – including internet giants – to take OVAW seriously is not impossible. As shown by the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, it is achievable to impose a duty on businesses to take action against possible human rights violations (in this case, slavery and human trafficking in supply chains) by requiring transparency in annual reporting. It is not impossible to think that an equivalent solution can be implemented in relation to transparent reporting on and taking action against OVAW by the internet companies.

We have reached breaking point in the pandemic of online violence against women. Its harmful ripple effects are noticeable in online and offline worlds alike, with many women in Libya and beyond paying a high price for speaking up or simply participating online. The internet platforms’ inaction towards addressing this phenomenon may not be illegal (as yet), but it is morally and socially reprehensible. It is critical to remember that ending OVAW is everyone’s business – 365 days a year.

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